Wedding Weekend Wonders

13 Dec 2006


"Will Darcy : I'm a hopeless dancer, but this looks like you just screw in a light bulb with one hand and pat the dog with the other." ~from Bride & Prejudice, a comment on Indian dancing.

Well, my last posting predicted some sort of misadventure involving the wedding of Kumar. It wasn't quite as out of control as I'd expected, but a few surprises are nonetheless worth noting.

For starters, we (my wife, daughter, and I) weren't told, until just moments before the ceremony, that we were not only in the wedding party, but that we were in the wedding itself as well. I don't know about you, but I'd never attended a Hindu wedding. I'd attended numerous Christian ones, a couple of rather unconventional secular ones (including my own, of course), and even a few Moslem ones. But, the Hindu ceremony was something I'd never seen. (Well, in person, anyway, as it's said that any Bollywood film worth its salt contains a wedding scene -- and I've watched many dozens of them.)

The festivities began with the procession of the groom's party. The best man had brought a large, extremely loud drum roughly the size of a kitchen trash can. This must've been a little unusual for the Sheraton staffers as we marched across the hotel lobby and up into the room. The procession came to a standstill at one point as the groom suffered some sort of wardrobe malfunction (to borrow a term from Janet Jackson) involving his traditional hat. I saved the day and, by extension, his entire marriage (!) by running to the front desk and requesting a complimentary sewing kit. And, in moments, the march re-began.

There's an interesting Indian tradition that, I'm sure, my sister will be glad does not extend to America. As the procession marches along, many of the women -- featuring the groom's sister -- must march ahead, dancing all the while. My wife was quite the trooper and danced along most of the route until we reached the room. (Again, she had no idea two minutes prior to doing this that this was expected of her.) As for me, I'd have flat out refused (having experienced the extreme humiliation of a "Soul Train" several years ago -- blogged about here and again here ).

Once in the room, I quickly found myself a seat (still unaware of my role in the ceremony). But, I soon got the "come over here" look from several others and knew something was up. So, I approached the front of the room and a guy I later came to realize was the bride's father touched my forehead with some red stuff on his finger. He then said, "It is official. You have attended Kumar's wedding."

Now, I've been inside a Hindu temple or two in my lifetime -- both here in the states as well as in the balmy subcontinent itself. So, I'm used to seeing that particular evidence of people who have been so anointed. However, I briefly entertained the thought that, on my rather stark complexion, the blessing must surely look more like a fresh bullet hole. I don't know for sure, but they said some other things in Hindi and I may actually be a Hindu myself now. I'll have to check.

I knew this was going to take a while, of course. Kumar's uncle had told me that the ceremony would clock in at around three hours. "That's nothing," I said. "I once went to a Moslem one that took seven -- and that was before the dinner was served."

So, I took a prominent seat, along with my wife and daughter, on the decorated platform at the center of the room. My ass fell asleep numerous times, which caused me to shift around a lot. I kept wondering whether my apparent fidgeting would constitute some sort of mortal insult. Thankfully, no one noticed.

The whole event transpired in Hindi, so I caught only a few sparse words. I think the priest said "a little bit" one time, for example -- a bit of Hindi that I picked up in order to tell others that I can only speak "a little bit." Without the benefit of any words, I can only report that the whole thing seemed to me a perfect mix of a religious ceremony and a rather complex business negotiation conducted in realtime. Money changed hands a lot -- between almost every imaginable combination of participants around the altar. And, when the people weren't handing money to each other, they were wrapping money in palm leaves, flowers, oils, and rice -- perhaps a hundred different times -- and then placing these little packages onto the altar.

With all of the focus on ceremony and ritual, I was surprised that the various supplies mentioned above were not kept in any special containers -- such that one might be familiar with from Christian rituals. During a Catholic mass, for example, the wine and bread and other goodies all have golden chalices and other fancy receptacles. But here, though people were dressed in the finest linens and though rose petals aligned every path, the supplies sat in styrofoam bowls -- the same kind, appropriately, in which I've served my killer dalh soup at many a wintertime Hillman-household soiree.

At one point early in the proceedings, I noticed what looked like bricks wrapped in aluminum foil. I began to wonder what those could possibly be for. However, that was answered soon as the priest lit a small fire in one of those large aluminum pans you might put catered food in. I couldn't have been the only attendee to wonder (1) whether this was a fire code violation or (2) whether the surely sensitive commercial-grade smoke detectors would trip at the slightest whiff of the oily black smoke rising from the pan. Thankfully, as I've said, the chanting and sermonizing was all in Hindi, so I was permitted ample time to ponder (without feeling too rude) the fire code issue in relation to the group's right to exercise religious freedom. I meditated on that issue at least as long as the next cycle of my right ass cheek falling numb.

Thankfully, the circulation was restored in time for my next official role -- which, again, I did not know was coming. You see, there was a part during which a cloth attached to the groom must be tied to a cloth attached to the bride. The symbolism is obvious, of course. According to tradition, this is a job for a brother-in-law of the groom. Kumar has two brothers-in-law, both of whom were in India. His other sister (who danced him into this ceremony along with my wife) is still single. However, since my wife is "like a sister" to him, that made me "like a brother-in-law," so I was asked to do the honor.

Thankfully, I had some whispered guidance from Kumar's uncle. "Take the coin with your right hand," he whispered. So, I stood behind the groom and bride (who'd been sitting on the platform like everyone else) and accepted what looked like a large silver coin, a couple of peanuts, and some other smaller things into my right palm. Then I stood there looking painfully stupid for a moment until someone else whispered that I needed to place these items onto the groom's cloth and secure them there with a knot. Sounds easy enough, I know. But, I had to think about it for a minute to devise a method that would definitely work.

After that, I was asked to tie the groom's cloth to the bride's. I tied a good strong knot and stepped back. But, Kumar looked back and said "Better tie one more."

"Oh, I get the meaning here," I mumbled. "Never supposed to come apart, right?" So I tied another good knot and gave it a quick tug from either end as a kind of demo. I glanced around at the various relatives and said, "That ain't comin' out." Several of them nodded in approval. Then I patted Kumar on the shoulder and sat back down.

A minute later, Kumar's aunt tossed some cash onto my lap -- presumably passed along from his mother. I whispered, "Am I supposed to now put this on the altar?"

"No," she replied. "You keep it."

"What do you mean?"

Kumar's uncle turned around and whispered. "That is for you. ... It's our custom."

I pocketed the cash and said to him, "That's a good custom!"

Apparently, the groom heard me and chuckled at this. In case you're wondering, it was $11. I'm not exactly sure, but I think there may be symbolism involved in the various amounts of money exchanged. Others received various other amounts also ending in "one."

The ceremony also included the pair walking around the fire several times as the party threw rose petals at them. Another quite entertaining part involved the groom holding onto the big toe of the bride and rubbing it in various small piles of things as he repeated what must've been vows from the priest. However, instead of simply repeating the statements, he apparently made a few jokes here. (I'm assuming he was pretending to negotiate some of the terms of the marriage.)

Speaking of negotiations and dollar-amounts ending in "one", the wedding ended with another tradition I'd never seen. After the ceremony, the sisters (or perhaps simply best friends or, basically, bridesmaids) "steal" the groom's shoes. He then has to negotiate with the women to get them back. It's quite a show, and I'd love to hear a translation of what happened. In the end, I'm pretty sure he paid the girls $51 for his shoes back.

In the mens room after the ceremony and before the reception, I confirmed my suspicion that I probably looked a little odd with the red dot on my forehead. It looked to me like indelible ink, so I gave it a quick touch with my finger to see. Turns out it was almost like a powder. The whole dot, quite surprisingly, came off at the lightest touch. I thought to myself, "Nice job, Hillman. Now the bride's dad is going to see that you've removed his blessing and it's going to be taken as a grave insult or, even worse, some kind of awful omen regarding his daughter's fate." Still, I chanced it and left the restroom. A few minutes later, I met the dad again and he didn't seem to notice.

The rest was fairly normal -- a nice reception, including several featured dancers, speeches (one particularly heartfelt one from the bride's father, though I didn't understand a word), a nice dinner, and an hour or so of the latest Punjabi beats. That quote at the top of the page, by the way, is from Bride & Prejudice. It was a quip from one of the featured non-Indian guys about how, if you simply pantomime those two actions (screwing in a light bulb and petting a dog on the head), you'll be doing a reasonable facsimile of Indian-style dancing. Funny, but it does work well.

The beer lovers among you will be happy to know that the $11 came in rather handy at the bar. Might I suggest to other Hindu couples that the incorporation of drink tickets into the negotiations would be quite handy?!

Original Comments

Below, are the original comments on this post. Additional comments may be made via Facebook, below.

On December 13, 2006, wormstooth wrote:

Your story makes a good short movie. I had one encounter with a Hindu. He was some kind of royalty, a college friend of one of my girls. My wife went nuts trying to cook Italian food that would be acceptable to him. It turned out he was very down to earth and friendly, and was quite fond of pepperoni. He said he liked our house. It was quaint. And it is.

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